The RSC’s most recent play in the Swan Theatre is just as good and just as interesting as A Museum in Baghdad which it has replaced.
Ostensibly about the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 it goes far beyond the superficial and often somewhat PC and sentimental treatment of the topic, showing the political wrangling involved in the passing of the Act and some of the hidden history behind it. Playwright Juliet Gilkes Romero manages to intertwine two stories – that of the anti-slavery legislation and also the pressure to do something about child labour in factories which led to the Factory Act, also in 1833. All of this is played to the backdrop of the Reform Act which was passed the previous year and which brought to an end the purchasing of most parliamentary seats and increased those entitled to vote to about one fifth of the population. It was a time of considerable political turmoil. For me the play was even more interesting in that it was so timely, coming hot on the heels of the UK’s separation from the EU, and that it was so relevant to our political situation in 2020.
Democracy was said over and over again. Does that ring a bell? Can there be democracy when fewer than half the men and no women have the vote? Is there democracy when we have an antiquated first past the post system and when both Conservative and Labour MEPs said when we visited the EU in Brussels that because of our method of electing MPs Britain was the least democratic country in the EU?
But what came out loud and clear in the play – over slavery, slave ownership, factory ownership (and in the whole Brexit business) – was the masking of political self-interest by ostensible moral righteousness.
The play points to the iniquities following the Slavery Abolition Act of the ‘apprentice scheme’ whereby the lives of ‘emancipated’ slaves was even worse than under slavery, a scheme which had to be abolished in 1838. It does, of course, make one wonder what privations will occur after our emancipation from the EU legislation which is so widely chattered about.
So this is an important play, not only because it shows hidden and suppressed history but because of its relevance to our situation today.
Juliet Gilkes Romero tells her story well. She focusses on the relationships between Government Chief Whip, Alexander Boyd, who has adopted as ward a runaway slave Edmund who has made good, become a parliamentary assistant to Boyd but receives no salary even though he is over sixteen, on Horatia Poskett, an ex-cotton worker who has become Boyd’s housekeeper and on Mercy Price, a runaway slave and abolitionist.
Corey Montague-Sholay is outstanding as Edmund. So is Debbie Korley as Mercy Price, a remarkable performance which makes it hard to believe that it is the same actress who played the American soldier in A Museum in Baghdad. Richard Clothier held my attention and interest throughout in a performance which ranges from dignified, powerful, vulnerable, self-seeking and principled by turns.
There are some striking decisions made by director Kimberley Sykes. Which accent do you use when? Both Mercy Price and Horatio Poskett are made parallel in their manipulation by pronunciation variations and are therefore undercut at times as moral characters, making the play more complex and interesting.
I did get a bit irritated by Ciaran Bagnall’s highly stylised set but that’s just me. The whole thing is a square boxing ring surrounded by a slightly raised area where the actors spend much of their time. A rectangular table flies up and down, up and down, up and down throughout and lots of people stand on it to deliver speeches, mostly political. Akintayo Akinbode’s music score is excellent and really enhances the play. I particularly enjoyed the various takes on hymn tunes which are integrated with more contemporary and atmospheric sounds.
The play also has my favourite line of the year so far, that we are ‘leaping into the arse-end of oblivion’: a line for all seasons.